Art reflects life, what the artwork presents and expresses are often an artists understanding on life, only such understanding is expressed through unique artistic modes. To which, art history is in fact the humans understanding about themselves, a portrayal of dissecting their own lives.
I. New Direction for the Aesthetics of Symbolism
The main theme presented in Jiang Hengs works depicts the fashionable urbanites of beautiful women of all forms. These fashionista embody the current thematic image, in other words, they are components of a unique landscape in this consumption society: the various product advertisements, various television entertainment program and beauty pagan competitions, the miss of all levels, image spokesperson and etc all contribute to the current social life. Such fashion and its irresistible attraction and its powerful impact rush toward us, that filter through in all aspects of our lives, to everyone not only to women, but to men as well are all involved unconsciously to certain degrees, and have assisted its formation, and a member of such conspiracy. This is the reality of our current life. What is hidden behind it are the naked commercial interests and the purposefully constructed and promoted material desires. This is what I have understood from Jiang Hengs artworks.
Jiang Heng presents his individual style with the unique paintings of femme fatales. To present ones individual style is the approach in which contemporary Chinese art is revealed. Such individual style has became a fixed model followed by artists like Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun, encompassing three characteristics: one is to compose with non-realistic forms, through which ones unique individual emblem is revealed; two, the actual form has a comprehensible symbolism, and because its comprehensible, it is easy for experts and the public to understand, as a result to be well promulgated; three, such form has a formulaic approach for reproduction, the concoction highlights the narrative connotation , reproduction that reinforces its effect. Why dont we call such art as symbolic art. Zhang Xiaogang formed his personal symbol of family culture (the idle family) with family photos; Wang Guangyi found his personal symbol of political satire with big character posters (and symbols of consumption); Yue Minjun formed his personal political criticism with vilified figures. Similarly, Jiang Heng used the symbol of the femme fatale as his trademark, unlike Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi and Yue Minjuns exploration of the past and present, Jiang Hengs femme fatale presents the relationship between the present and the future. If the art of the Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi and Yue Minjun is a type of art/political criticism, then Jiang Hengs art is a criticism of culture and society. If the former focuses on political culture, then Jiang Hengs work focuses on todays consumption culture. From a broader perspective, both these approaches provide multiple theoretical interpretations on Chinas social transition, all of which offer rooms for interpretation. Art historically, it is the beginning of artistic representation, reflection, and criticism on the current consumer culture in China. Jiang Hengs symbols of femme fatale push forward artistic cultural representation in terms of artistic expression and cultural content.
Jiang Hengs works portray a series of various , fashionable women with bright vibrant colors, flat composition, and cartoon-like exaggerations. Such intended non-realistic artistic approach distanced the femme fatale in his paintings from those found in real life that provides the view with a faux impression. Therefore, the immediate association of viewing these paintings prompts one to imagine the mannequins in a store, whereas Jiang Hengs other works (Idol Era I, II, III, IV) seem to have literally alluded to such associations. As the saying goes, eyes are windows to ones heart; although the feminine figures in Jiang Hengs paintings come in all shapes and forms, however their common characteristics is their empty gaze, all of their big eyes are ornamented with soulless glass balls. Those purposefully soulless eyes seem to tell people that, I am a soulless fabricated doll. Moreover, such outcry is notdolorous and timid but joyful and agreeable, or even with certain sense of pride because of the smirk they present to the viewers. They are like Venus who lost her soul; they are the doll-like femme fatale produced by the consumer era.
II. Internal Structure within the Artworks
We are happy yet soulless, in other words, a happiness without spirituality. Perhaps this is the fashion of this consumer era. To be living in this era, are we fortunate or should we be sad about it.
The femme fatales portrayed by Jiang Heng are artistic symbols of this consumption era. The title he has given to this series Landscape of the Consumption Era mainly depicts beautiful women and cutleries which highlights the two most basic desires: lust and food. Here, I am not going to analyze the meaning and symbolism of the two, but to focus on the title, and their associating with the femme fatale and consumption society. In this sense, Jiang Hengs work series continues to focus on femme fatale: Femme Fatale; Femme Fatal Fish, Blossom; Blue; Butterflies, Scattered Objects, Constellation and etc, are all representations of the consumption society, all reveal the todays consumption society through these beautiful women. Moreover, the keywords in these titles: femme fatale, fish, butterfly, blossom, blue, objects are all etymologically related. Such association weaves into a network of significance, allowing the meaning of the beautiful women to gather, disperse, filter and deepen. These series of works shows an emphasis and an understanding of the close relationship between consumption and beautiful women, even Jiang Hengs other series that are seemingly unrelated to beautiful women, Flower Pattern Fabric, Exile, Toy Pig can also be associated to beautiful women with the same approach: the basic elements in Flower Pattern Fabric are precisely those of the femme fatale series, it could be said as a series of beautiful women beyond the images. The arrows in Exile are the basic elements of the femme fatales allusions. Therefore, the Exile series can also be considered as part of the femme fatale series. The object, context, motions and language of the Toy Pig series all allude to the beautiful women of the consumption era. In other words, Toy Pig is also part of the femme fatale series The names given to women in Chinese society vary from the beginning of the founding of the republic of comrade, to miss, lady from the reform era, to beautiful woman now in public spaces. How to understand beautiful women became a topic of contemporary culture, or even beyond this realm.
Art historically speaking, the feminine figure is always associated with beauty, she is an expression of peoples understanding of ideal beauty of their era, and also an expression of the aesthetics of that era. For instance, Venus, Birth of Venus, Mona Lisa, and Stream are all as such. Therefore, Jiang Hengs femme fatales can be seen as the expression of the ideal beauty of our era and the concept of aesthetics of our time. Obviously, the beauty depicted in these works is shallow, superficial and meaningless, false, or bubble-like. The flattened composition and its non-realistic approach to a certain degree hint to and strengthen the expression of such concept. For this reason, if we compare Jiang Hengs work with the aforementioned classics, one would obtain an even clearer picture. Hegel has once stated that, Beauty is the sensational representation of sensations. Whereas the beauty represented by the femme fatales are obviously lacking any concept, but simply representation of sensations, which explains its emptiness and falsehood.
III. Characteristics of Jiang Hengs Femme Fatale
The fashionable femme fatale represents the fashion of these beautiful women, and such fashion represents the concept of aesthetics of our era. The reason such beauty is false is because fashion is constructed with hidden material desire. Therefore, the beauty formed through fashion is nothing but a coat to cover ones timidness. We are living in an era of consumption, everything is transformed into an object to be consumed, and of course beauty is not an exception. When beauty becomes the consumable object, beauty becomes nothing but an empty void. As for specific examples in our everyday lives, there are many fashionable entice of plastic surgeries, cosmetics and such to sculpt the fabricated beauty, a trend on the incline. One can image, if ones life is surrounded with similar and sculpted beautiful faces, just as Jiang Hengs beauty series, one might not share the true aesthetic experience. Some would remain dumb and exhaust. In fact, the fashionable beauty fabricated in the name of beauty has already let to aesthetic exhaustion for many people in this era. Since the early 20th century, the reason why art no longer represents beauty is essentially because in real life, beauty has already departed us, moreover, replaced by the gradually inflated fashion run by material desires in the guise of beauty.
The embellished forms of women in Jiang Hengs works can be summarized with three characteristics.
As early as the 1930s, Benjamins Artworks in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction has made the infamous distinction between traditional art and contemporary art: traditional art has a unique sense of glory, which is represents its artistic beauty; the essence of modern art resides in its producebility, that causes the glory of art to disappear. The reason I mention Benjamin is not to explicate his theories, but to appropriate his distinction to distinguish beauty and fashion. In my view, the beautiful objects all emit unique glories, such glory includes certain impenetrable kind of mystery allowing it become the unique and irreplaceable this, capturing ones attention and inebriates them. whereas, the essence of fashion resides in its endless reproducebility, the unique such could never have became any fashion. It is precisely the consistent reproduction of certain objects gathered will slowly form into a type of fashion.
First of all, the doll characteristics of the female figure. Jiang Hengs female figure does not conjure truth from realist art, but embodies that of the Barbie Dolls. In other words, transforming Barbie dolls in two-dimensional space. As a toy, it can be shaped according to ones will. It is ideally highlighted through her big eyes (the big eyes are not only the global aesthetics of western culture, but also the result of modernizing Chinese aesthetic taste); because it is a toy, the ideal of this beautiful woman directly reveals the falsehood of its masking nature. The beauty in masking is becoming the characteristic of women in the consumption society, moreover, the masking beauty is appropriate for the essence of the beautiful women in this society: its doll-like characteristic.
The consumer era is an era driven by fashion, moreover fashion is an empty form of literal objects. For this very reason, which conveniently became its reproductability. Therefore, fashion is also irrational. As for fashion, one does not need to understand. It does not require a soul, but devoted followers. Those who roam about in Fashion are the public who talk about it. while reproducing each other, people obtained a type of sense that I am part of the fashion trend by which to confirm or inebriates oneself.
Secondly, it is the consumability of the female figure. Jiang Hengs femme fatales are displayed in a fashion of the desired object. It is especially conspicuous in the series of Landscape of the Consumption Era and Femme Fatale Fish. In Landscape of the Consumption Era, the beautiful women are placed in on plates, mixing lust and food. Some are one woman on a single plate, others show two women on two plates, and so on so forth - it is a feast of women, a feast of desire in an era of consumption. Those femme fatales highlighted lips shows her edible nature, and her headless body and raised legs emphasize a mindless yet physical desire, especially those pose with hips raised up high - a display of multiple metaphors in the consumption of desires. Similarly, Femme Fatale Fish uses fish as the object of consumption, as well as being the main body of consumption. Fish in Chinese culture is symbolic of reproduction, marriage of men and women is known as the happiness of fish in water. In the Femme Fatale Fish series, the beautiful women are often placed in water, and numerous fish swim around it. However, in the consumption era, fish is already irrelevant to the reproduction of men, but related to the satisfaction of the act of mating, symbolizing games and satisfaction of ones desire. The women surrounded by fish have shown varying expressions on different paintings, especially her flirtatious look of the winking eye, underlines that beautiful women are not only the object of consumption, but also the main body of those who consume. Once one understands the meaning of the subject/object/consumption/desire, could the meaning of consumption and the meaning of this era found in the false beauty of these women become apparent.
For this reason, Jiang Hengs art can be seen as a figurative expression of the current society. The mutual reproduction, lack of characteristics, soulless happy and fashionable female figures, composes into the revelation on the essence of fashion.
Thirdly, the metaphorical meaning of these beautiful women. The plates in Landscape of Consumption Era and the fish in Femme Fatale Fish highlights the context in which the beauties appear inform us the metaphorical meaning in the artists thinking. Form this view, the context is that in which defines the beauties, strictly speaking, since these figures are not realist portraits, therefore, the context should not be referred to their context, but the decorative elements to reinforce the ideas behind these women. These decorative elements are not done at ones will, but purposefully contemplated. As we look through the femme fatale series, and as these elements unfold, eventually they were gathered in the series of Flower Pattern Fabric: goldfish, apple, flower, butterfly, legs, stilettos, pills, airplane, hand gun each symbolize one aspect of the femme fatale, which are all rich in meanings from a culture and art historical point of view. Furthermore, the characteristics of beautiful women of the consumption era are further displayed. These elements, when each accompanies a beauty, they imply the multiple complexities of women of this era. Let us examine the decorative elements for these femme fatale.
IV. The Metaphorical Elements in the Femme Fatale Composition
Every element in forming the femme fatale conjures complex meaning.
Fish: alludes to sexual desire and satisfaction in Chinese culture.
Apple: symbolize female and the classic war stories caused by women in ancient Greek history.
Flower: symbolizes beauty and glamour in every culture.
Butterfly: not only implies beautiful women (colorful butterfly), but also the pursuit of beautiful women (butterfly resting on flowers)
Legs and stilettos: fashion symbols of modern cities, as well as symbols of desire in modern cities.
Pills: symbolize the stimulant for desire in the consumption era, the fashionable ailment in such era, desires and fashion requires pills to stimulate, numb and cure.
Hand gun: the realistic reaction to this object is stimulation, danger, and death which also coexist with the external glamour of consumption era; in a spiritual analysis, it symbolizes the male reproductive organ, which is related to desire, power, ejaculation and penetration.
Airplane: Psychoanalytically, it also symbolizes the male reproductive organ, related to erection, hard-on, flying, penetration, but is also related to desire, height, drifting and inebriation.
Not found in the Flower Pattern Fabric, but a main element in the femme fatale series, the arrow, is similar in content with handgun but different in form, the former is found from the past, whereas the latter is a modern object. At the same time, it exemplifies that stimulation, danger, injuries, death have been the same throughout history.
In sum, fish, apple, flower, butterfly, legs, stilettos, pills, arrows, hand guns, air planes placed with beautiful women do not only create a context for these beauties, but also defines the nature of the consumption era, moreover, defines the nature of the beauties. For this reason, Jiang Hengs paintings of beautiful women are mutually effective: portraying the beauties symbolizing Chinas consumption era, and depicting Chinas consumption era with these women. From this view, one can understand why Jiang Hengs women are portrayed as dolls, as well as how such form is accessible to the modern public.
V. Looking at Jiang Hengs Femme Fatales Composition Artistically
Jiang Hengs composition of femme fatale is unique, however, the approach to this uniqueness is not original. As I have mentioned before, it is a common phenomenon in contemporary Chinese art, as well as the three main characteristics of creative approaches: the non-realist composition; the symbolism of the object; and the formulaic reproducibility. I think the strength and weaknesses of Jiang Hengs femme fatale are both related to this approach, what needs to be clarified however is, the other complex story related to culture and art history.